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Steven Attleberger, 26, front, used a saw to cut through tree stakes at the Opportunity Resources Inc. wood shop on Third Street in 2016 as Larry Van Noy looks on. Attleberger had been working at ORI for five years, and he’d only had his pay increased once to about $10.50 an hour.

One of Missoula’s largest and oldest nonprofit organizations is facing potentially calamitous, unexpected budget cuts due to state revenue shortfalls.

Opportunity Resources Inc., which employs 350 people mostly in Missoula and serves 1,500 clients with mental and physical disabilities, was recently notified that the Montana Department of Health and Human Services is planning to implement a 3.47 percent cut to all developmental disability provider rates paid to ORI by the state beginning on Oct. 1.

According to ORI director Ken Brown, this would mean an annual reduction of more than $400,000 from ORI’s budget, which he said would devastate critical programs and services the organization offers.

“We weren’t expecting this,” he said. “We were struggling as it was. Things were already not good. With the wages we’re paying, some of our staff already have two or three other jobs to make ends meet. It’s demoralizing for the staff to be faced with those types of conditions, which leads to turnover and the inability to hire new staff.”

In the past few years, the nonprofit has had to shutter an electronic waste recycling facility, sell a group home, make administrative cuts and throttle back plans for a working ranch due to budget shortfalls. That was before this latest blow.

Opportunity Resources, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, began in 1955 in Missoula. The organization runs several programs that allow people with disabilities to have gainful employment and interact with the community. Employees at ORI supervise clients who work in a large wood products shop, for example, and workers also take clients on supervised trips to various community events so they can be meaningful members of society.

ORI’s budget is set by the state Legislature, and that body has not approved a wage increase for ORI employees in a long time. Therefore, most direct support providers are making around $10 an hour in Missoula.

“Paying $10 an hour to staff where they can go make $14 at a fast food chain, it’s hard for us to compete,” Brown said.

After state tax revenues came in $75 million lower than projected, the state on Tuesday announced deep budget cuts that will affect many programs and services in Montana. On June 30, ORI was notified that funding is dependent upon state tax revenue triggers in Senate Bill 261.

According to ORI marketing manager Erica DeForrest, the amendments to SB 261 were not brought forth until April 26, when they were adopted. The amendments passed both the second and third readings the next day and the Legislature adjourned on the morning of April 28.

“There was no public hearing offered for this process, which reversed the community input given during the consideration of the (state) budget (House Bill 2),” DeForrest said. “In addition, Senate Bill 261 originally included only a 0.5 percent cut to DPHHS across the board and no one expected this would come out of the providers’ — like ORI — budgets. DPHHS is now using its discretion to disproportionately cut funding by 3.47 percent. Because ORI’s budget is predominately comprised of compensation, these cuts will negatively impact the individuals served by ORI staff, and the 350 individuals employed by ORI.”

As a result of the unexpected budget triggers, there will be two public hearings to discuss the budget cuts in Helena on Thursday, July 27. A meeting to discuss senior long-term care services will be held at 8:30 a.m. at the DPHHS building in Helena located at 111 N. Sanders St., and a meeting to discuss developmental disabilities will be held at 2:30 p.m. at the same place.

Brown said that the bulk of ORI’s funding comes from the state.

“Of that funding, 30 percent is a state match and 70 percent comes from the federal government,” he said. “We bill on the number of staff hours we have, so we can’t cut staff hours. So we just don’t have as much money to pay if our rates are cut.”

The “bottom fell out” of the market for recycled electronics waste, so the organization had to close its facility near the Missoula airport, according to Brown.

“We also sold a group home because we couldn’t bring enough clients in and we needed to make a mortgage," he said. "We have a ranch that was donated to us, and instead of being able to operate that, we had to basically lease it out. We made some administrative cuts with management positions. Those were things we were doing before the cuts. We were struggling as it was and things were not good.”

Brown said that ORI lost out on $900,000 worth of state and federal funding because it simply couldn’t hire enough people.

“We can’t lower people’s wages because that’s just kind of a downward spiral,” he said. “We can’t do it because we need to hire staff. So we’re going to look at positions that aren’t directly billed for. We’re going to have to look at what services potentially aren’t making money.”

He added that it will be the clients who suffer in the end.

“When you have less staff, clients don’t get out in the community as much,” he noted. “They don’t get to visit their families that may be in different communities as much. It’s the difference between an institution and a community-based organization. Clients have to stay home if they don’t have access to services. Then, it defeats that quality of life.”

Comments can be submitted, in writing, no later than Friday, Aug. 4, to Kenneth Mordan, DPHHS, Office of Legal Affairs, P.O. Box 4210, Helena, Montana, 59604; by fax to 406-444-9744; or by email at dphhslegal@mt.gov.

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